In the United States alone, 32 million people live with a severe or life-threatening food allergy . Also, within this number there has been a 377% increase in anaphylactic reactions to food. The only way to prevent this type of response is to learn more about allergies.

Learning about what happens to your body when you develop a food allergy is a big part of understanding the problem and the reactions that can occur. The other essential aspect of learning is how to prevent an episode and how to treat an allergy .

However, before explaining these things, it is crucial that you know the signs and symptoms of a food allergy. And you should know how your doctor will form a diagnosis.

Signs and symptoms of a food allergy

The symptoms and signs of a food allergy are different for everyone. The differences are based on the severity of the allergy and the amount of food you eat. Some of the signs and symptoms include:

  • Tingling in the mouth or tongue
  • Itching in or around the mouth
  • Urticaria
  • Itching and eczema
  • Swelling of the lips, face, tongue, or throat
  • Resollar
  • Nasal congestion
  • Labored breathing
  • Stomach or abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fainting or feeling dizzy
  • Anaphylaxis (which could lead to death)

What is anaphylaxis and why is it life threatening?

Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction that can lead to death. This reaction can cause the airways to constrict and narrow. Your throat can become swollen, making it difficult or impossible to breathe.

Additionally, you may experience shock, a severe drop in blood pressure, or a rapid pulse during an anaphylaxis reaction. This can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, or even loss of consciousness.

Talking about and understanding this reaction in depth is important as it is a very severe reaction. Anyone with a food allergy could experience anaphylaxis , and knowing its severity can help with prevention and understanding.

How is a food allergy diagnosed?

Being diagnosed with an allergy can be difficult, especially for children. Since children experience so many body changes, doctors may want to check for other problems first. Some doctors may even attribute the reactions to eczema or acid reflux until tests are done.

However, this is not always the case and your diagnosis may be relatively easy. When you start to suspect that you may have developed a food allergy, you should take notes. Notes should include what your reaction was, what foods you had been eating, and how long it took for the response to subside.

Take notes like that every time you react. You may be able to identify the exact food fairly quickly, or at least narrow your suspicions to at least a couple of foods. When you see your doctor, go over the notes with them.

From there, your doctor will likely order an allergy test by an allergist to make sure that food is the culprit. There are a couple of different types of allergy tests, but the most common is the skin test, which involves pricking the skin on the back or forearm with various allergens.

This test will show how severe the allergy is, in addition to confirming that there is an allergy itself.

With the prick and puncture method, a raised lump will appear in the area where a specific substance was introduced into the skin if there is an allergy to that food.

Other allergy tests include:

  1. A physical exam to rule out other medical problems
  2. A blood test, which measures your immune system’s response to a substance based on IgE levels
  3. Elimination diet, which is when you eliminate a suspect food for a full week or two and then add the same again to your diet to see if a reaction occurs
  4. Oral Food Challenge, held in a doctor’s office. You will eat the suspicious food in small amounts that will increase to see if and when a reaction occurs.

Things that can help speed up the diagnosis

  • Track your symptoms
  • Keep track of the foods that seem to cause the reaction
  • Pay attention to the amount of food you ate
  • Inform your doctor of your family history of allergies

What happens to your body

When you develop an allergy, your body suddenly begins to detect a substance (in this case, food) as harmful. Your body will start to make immunoglobulin E (IgE), which are antibodies. These antibodies bind to cells and cause a release of histamine.

Histamine causes inflammation in milder cases and a drop in blood pressure or anaphylactic shock in severe cases. This is because immunoglobulin E antibodies are supposed to fight infection. In the case of an allergy, however, IgE is released by mistake.

How a food allergy develops later in life

Some people are born with food allergies, and others develop them later in life. This concept is confusing for most people because it seems impossible to develop an allergy later in life to something you have never had a problem with before.

Unfortunately, it happens, and it’s not unusual.

Developing an allergy later in life is common. Unfortunately, doctors and researchers don’t really know why this happens, but there are some theories.

An allergy is sometimes thought to develop after you’ve been exposed to something that wasn’t present in your body before. However, that is not always the case, since an allergy can occur with a food that you have consumed regularly.

Severe Food Allergy Treatment Plans

There is no cure for allergies, although they can disappear at any time. However, there are treatment options to help you along the way.

Prevention

Treatment plans vary, but they all start in one place: prevention. Rule number one is to avoid the allergen as often as possible and have ideas in place to avoid a reaction.

This means that you should always read all food labels before eating them. If there is no ingredient label, then you will have to avoid it. Unfortunately, this means that trying your luck is not an option for you, so you may need to plan and pack your food ahead of time.

Another way to prevent a reaction is to tell the people you see regularly about your allergy. They can choose to leave that allergen at home the next time they know you will be with them. This also means that they will be able to notify you if they see that allergen near the food you eat.

Other treatment options

  • Create an action plan and make sure those around you are aware of it.
  • Ask your doctor to prescribe an epinephrine autoinjector such as an EpiPen.
  • Learn how to use your epinephrine autoinjector and make sure the people you live with have one too.
  • Wear a medical alert bracelet in case you have a reaction and cannot communicate.
  • Take Benedryl for less severe reactions.

If you have to use an epinephrine autoinjector for allergies

When prescribed, a doctor will show you how to use the autoinjector, but if you haven’t done it before, you may forget or feel uncomfortable. However, it is not complicated at all.

The autoinjector has a hidden needle that pops out and injects a dose of epinephrine into your body when you push the injector into your thigh.

It’s also important to remember to tell people you see often how to use the autoinjector in case you become unconscious or unable to administer it yourself for whatever reason.

You should carry it with you at all times, and having an extra auto-injector in the places you visit frequently could save your life. It is also essential to check the dates on your autoinjector to make sure the medication has not passed its expiration date.

If you had to use your EpiPen or an equivalent medication, you will need to visit an emergency room after doing so. Another dose may be required, but even if it isn’t necessary, it still needs to be checked by a professional.

By Dr. Eric Jackson

Dr. Eric Jackson provides primary Internal Medicine care for men and women and treats patients with bone and mineral diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic illnesses.He is a Washington University Bone Health Program physician and is a certified Bone Densitometrist. Dr. Avery is consistently recognized in "The Best Doctors in America" list.

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